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(Letter VII)

A minister asked John Newton whether a preacher should call upon one who is not regenerate to repent and believe the Gospel:

IN a late conversation, you desired my thoughts concerning a scriptural and consistent manner of addressing the consciences of unawakened sinners in the course of your ministry. It is a point on which many eminent ministers have been, and are, not a little divided; and it therefore becomes me to propose my sentiments with modesty and caution, so far as I am constrained to differ from any from whom in general I would be glad to learn.

John Newton, Richard Cecil, The Works of the John Newton, vol. 1, “Letter VII” (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 173.

To understand the weight of the question, one must understand that prior to coming to salvation, a human being – although a morally significant actor – is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Accordingly, one can be saved only if God graciously goes first and brings one to life.

The complex of doctrines which speak to the inability of unregenerate human beings to come to God, but graciously going first and saving his enemies, is known as the doctrines of grace.

The rub of the question is logical consistency: If an unregenerate man cannot repent, then why should I call upon him to repent? As Newton explains, the question misstates the case and misapprehends the doctrines of human inability and God’s gracious ability.

I.The Two Options

Newton begins with the two basic options.

A. The Preacher Who Makes no Call to Repent.

Some think, that it is sufficient to preach the great truths of the word of God in their hearing; to set forth the utterly ruined and helpless state of fallen man by nature, and the appointed method of salvation by grace, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; and then to leave the application entirely to the agency of the Holy Spirit[.]

In their effort to avoid “legalism” (the belief that human effort will be meritorious before God), such men do not call upon the unregenerate to respond. They are concerned they will “contradict themselves, and retract in their application what they had laboured to establish in the course of their sermons.”

B. The Preacher Calls for Repentance

There are a second class of preachers who hold just as fervently to the doctrines of grace and yet who call for repentance. As Newton says, such men:

think it their duty to deal with sinners as rational and moral agents: and as such, besides declaring the counsel of God in a doctrinal way, to warn them by the terrors of the Lord, and to beseech them by his tender mercies, that they receive not the grace of God, in a preached Gospel, in vain.[1]


(In the next post, we will look at Newton’s evaluation of the two positions, both from an experiential and a Scripture point of view.)



[1] John Newton, Richard Cecil, The Works of the John Newton, vol. 1 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 174.